By Debbie Adams
Emilie McCaskill, a rising senior at William Byrd High School, has a better “How did you spend your summer?” story than most. She just returned from two weeks in France, visiting two families she met here at home through the Roanoke Valley Sister Cities Program in October 2019. She spent a week with the Gosselein family and their daughter Constance in Barfleur and another week with Clothilde Mahé and her family in Saint-Lô.
The Sister Cities program was established in 1964 in an alliance between Roanoke and Wonju, South Korea. Dr. Young Kim, who trained at Roanoke’s Jefferson Hospital from 1956-58, felt so welcomed and loved by the community that he vowed never to forget Roanoke. After he returned to South Korea, his city asked for suggestions for an American city to partner with in its new Sister Cities initiative and he proposed Roanoke.
The program’s mission statement affirms, “Sister Cities is committed to promoting mutual understanding, friendship, and peace through cultural, medical, economic, educational and professional exchanges among the people of the Roanoke Valley and the citizens of seven sister cities on four continents.” Saint-Lô in France became one of those sister cities in 1998.
Saint-Lô is a medieval city in Normandy dating back to the ninth century with a population of about 25,000. The town was the scene of a violent, decisive World War II battle between American Armed Forces and entrenched German forces after the Allies landed on D-Day on June 6, 1944. Ninety-five percent of the town was demolished. The Army’s 29th Division, 116th Infantry Regiment, composed of many Virginians, liberated Saint-Lô on July 19, 1944, for which the residents express their gratitude to this day.
Under the Sister Cities program, a bridge, the Le Pont De Roanoke (the Roanoke Bridge), spanning the Vire River, was dedicated in 1999. The late Roanoke D-Day veteran Bob Slaughter forged the relationship with Saint-Lô.
In the years since 1998, students and teachers from Saint-Lô have come to Roanoke to visit during the school year, while groups from Roanoke have visited Saint-Lô during the summer—until the pandemic.
The McCaskills volunteered to host Constance and Clothilde for a week in 2019 when they learned of the need for families through Emilie’s French teacher. (Emilie’s brother had been an exchange student through Sister Cities in 2015.)
The two girls had many scheduled activities with the Sister Cities organization while they were here in 2019, but spent the mornings and evenings with the McCaskills, plus two days to do whatever they wanted.
Emilie and her family took them to visit the Mill Mountain Star, a pumpkin patch, and a UVA football game, in addition to everyday destinations, like the grocery store. The exchange students spent another week traveling in the United States visiting landmarks, including Washington, D.C.
Emilie had planned to travel to France in the summer of 2020, but COVID delayed those plans until this year.
In the almost two years since the students visited Vinton, Emilie has kept in touch with them through social media and texting, with her mother, Angela, emailing their parents.
With so many health guidelines and restrictions–here and abroad–the Sister Cities program was not involved in facilitating the trip for Emilie this summer; the McCaskills made the arrangements for travel on their own.
While the pandemic did not stop her from traveling to France this summer, there were still ramifications from COVID. She had been fully vaccinated in February but was required to take a COVID test before she left and to fill out “lots of paperwork.” She was required to show her vaccination documentation to travel.
Her mother says that while France has opened its borders to American tourists, the United States has not reciprocated to permit the French to visit here. On her way back home, Emilie had to endure another COVID test and sign an attestation stating that her results were negative.
Emilie had hoped to be in France for four weeks, but ACL surgery due to a basketball injury shortened her stay to two weeks—one with each family. She left for France on June 28 and returned on July 12.
The Gosseleins–Constance, her parents, and her two older brothers–are a middle-class family who own a
vegetable distribution company in Barfleur, which is located along the English Channel. While in Normandy, Emilie and Constance, on their own, visited D-Day sites and the medieval Mont-Saint-Michel Monastery.
The Mahés family–Clothilde, her parents, an older brother and a younger brother–also live a typically middle-class life. They use cell phones at the table, play games, and spent a good deal of time watching sports on TV while Emilie was there, including the Tour de France and Euro League Soccer.
The Mahé family asked Emilie to choose their itinerary for the week, which included historic Saint-Lô, a zoo, and her favorite–Paris. Emilie says they saw everything–the Louvre, the Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame, and every other landmark that time allowed. In fact, they “walked it all,” with 23,000 steps that day.
Emilie says she felt very at ease with the Mahé family who did their best to make her feel at home. While she was there, Emilie spoke French with the families and their friends.
Emilie’s mother—a Francophile since middle school—says that Emilie could speak French before she could speak English. That’s partly due to French au pairs who lived with the family for Emilie’s first eight years. Her parents both spoke French fluently as well.
Emilie has studied French for four years at William Byrd, including a year with Philippe Pansiot, a French native. She was able to fine tune her language skills and learned some of the intricacies of colloquial French on the recent trip. When ordering in a restaurant, she thought she was ordering a steak, “steak haché” which turned out to be a hamburger.
She says that other than the language, life in France was not that different from Vinton. One dissimilarity was that the family tended to eat very late at night—a two-hour meal that usually ended about 10 p.m. The food was basically the same—and she loved their snacks.
Emilie is an outstanding student at William Byrd, having been named a Junior Marshal for the Class of 2021 graduation ceremonies. She plays basketball (captain of the team) and tennis. She will be serving as president of the SCA and FCA this year. She is an intern and volunteer at Vinton Baptist Church and works at Kroger.
In 2021-22, she will be enrolled in all AP classes at William Byrd—French, English, Biology, Government, Calculus, and Physics. Taking dual enrollment classes with Virginia Western Community College, she will receive her high school diploma and her Associate Degree both next spring. Her plans after graduation are to enroll at the University of Virginia to study pharmacy.
Emilie says she would definitely recommend the Sister Cities exchange program to other students as a way to learn not just the language, but the culture. “It was an immeasurable experience to go over and explore the culture first-hand.”
Angela McCaskill describes the trip as “awesome, and a way to get the experience of a lifetime in just a few days’ time.” They are “very grateful for the opportunity Emilie had because learning language is done best when you are immersed in the culture.”